Post-COVID Travel Begins: Starting Close to Home

Post-COVID Travel Begins: Starting Close to Home

Who says you have to jet off to far-flung places in search of amazing travel experiences? Regardless of where you live, we’d wager you could get in a car and drive for two hours to find yourself in another world. And you’re probably no more than a stone’s throw from some luxury accommodation. There’s a tendency to think that you aren’t really travelling if you haven’t left your own country. We beg to differ.

These discerning travellers live in Canada―Toronto, Canada’s largest city (4th largest in North America after Mexico City, New York and LA). So, for us, we only have to walk for ten to thirty minutes to be in any number of luxury hotels or to dine in a five-star restaurant. The COVID lockdown here in Ontario’s province has been longer and deeper than any jurisdiction on the continent. But we’re better off for it, and things are beginning to loosen up. So, it was time. We booked our first few days away in ten months, and we were off and running.

A pleasant hour-and-a-half drive from downtown where we live is where you’ll find small-town Ontario. This province is peppered with beautiful little towns and villages, and it’s about time we started exploring them. This year, we began with Alton, the home of Millcroft Inn and Spa, a member of the Vintage Hotels group. And it was lovely.

Two years ago, we stayed at Queen’s Landing in Niagara-on-the-Lake, another Vintage Hotel, so we were expecting great things. Built in 1881 as a knitting mill, the Millcroft Inn is naturally situated on the edge of a mill pond with a beautiful waterfall that used to run its machinery. The interior of the main inn building is a bit non-prepossessing if you really want to know. But, in its defence, we are in the middle of a pandemic, and the plexiglass screens don’t really add anything to the ambience. The bar area looks like it would be wonderful in better times when we could sit at that bar, but we had to eat outside on the patio during our stay. This is hardly a hardship!

A view of the main building from a small opening in the trees across the pond.

The patio is completely covered and sits on the very edge of the millpond. The view across the pond is of densely packed trees completely hiding the rest of the inn buildings beyond. Shortly after we arrived late in the afternoon, we realized we were famished.

We made our way to the patio and had the place all to ourselves as we watched the rain disturb the peacefulness of the pond while drinking beautifully crafted martinis and eating their excellent charcuterie board. To say that the food is terrific would be something of an understatement.

Since Alton is a very pretty but very small village, really, the only game in town for dining is the Millcroft itself. We made our reservations for our three evenings on the restaurant patio in advance, which is highly recommended. Each meal was as delicious as the one before.

Their breakfast menu is interesting, but since we were staying for three nights (we were told many guests stay for only one), the offerings can get tiresome. We also did note that the breakfast service was nothing like the dinner service, which was impeccable. Two days in a row, we had to inquire as to the whereabouts of our meals, which then arrived with tepid poached eggs. The problem at breakfast seems to be that the room-service patrons are given priority over the ones actually sitting in the dining room. This is something they could work on.

We opted to stay in one of their priciest accommodations―what they call a croft room. It is really a two-level suite with a walkout to a small private terrace. Ours was furnished with a private hot tub on the little deck. Since this is a spa, there are several outdoor public hot tubs, but we prefer time to ourselves (as anyone who had ever read anything we’ve written will already know!). It was lovely. What about the room itself?

Where to begin? Let’s just say that it is rustic―rustic to the point of needing a renovation. The bathroom had obviously been done, but that was probably at least a decade ago and could perhaps use another spruce up. But if you love rustic, you’ll be in heaven.

The sleeping area is upstairs, which we knew about in advance. What we did not realize is that the bathroom, on the other hand, is downstairs. That means a long, dark, steep climb down and back up should you have to get up in the middle of the night. It also means several ups and downs of the stairs just to get ready in the morning. Something to consider.

We enjoyed a six-kilometre hike on the property and were happy we took along our hiking shoes. That’s the beauty of a road trip. You can throw extras in the trunk of your car just in case. The trails wander through a wooded area and into beautiful open fields where not a building―or another single person―can be seen. The only downside was that the trail markings are less than accurate, and the map the front desk provided―well, it would be helpful if a staff member actually hiked the trails to see that the map isn’t as accurate as it should be. They need an app for that.

And speaking of technology―the inn has a well-developed AI concierge of sorts. We communicated with it via text, and when we needed ice or hangers, we simply texted, and a personable staff member appeared with our request.

We took advantage of being in an area of our province with which we are not that familiar and took a short road trip each of the full days we were there. The first was to the pretty town of Orangeville, where we had a lovely patio lunch. The next day, we explored Guelph and had another delicious patio lunch in their downtown area. Guelph is a university town, so the downtown is crowded with eateries.

Our three-day adventure was just the beginning. We can feel it in our bones. We’re waiting until the winter for our first post-pandemic big trip when we have three weeks of island-hopping planned. Until then, we’ll be hitting the road every opportunity we get!

Autumn Escape to Muskoka

Lake Rosseau

Ever since Barry Manilow made a “Weekend in New England” synonymous with escaping from the city to a place that could “take you away” the notion of fleeing the urban metropolis for even a brief sojourn to tranquility has resonated. And it doesn’t even have to be to spend time with someone you see only infrequently (as the song seems to imply). Our escape to the country this past week wasn’t a weekend (it was a mid-week sojourn which is even better), it was the two of us who spend all our time together (who better to accompany you to commune with nature) and it wasn’t New England (it was the Muskoka Lakes region of Canada). But that’s just splitting hairs. We had a wonderful time.

We leave Toronto and head north toward what is referred to in the city as “cottage country.” This cottage country is situated on the southernmost edge of a landmass referred to as the Canadian Shield. This is a mass of some eight million square kilometres of pre-Cambrian rock face that all good little Canadians learn about in elementary school geography. We have to admit, it more frequently conjured images of flat masses of rock, and although this is the case way up north, this southern edge is largely forested. In the fall, it takes on rich hues of fiery red, vivid orange, vibrant yellow, and rusty brown. What really makes it cottage country, though, is the fact that the region is sprinkled with 1600 interconnected lakes and nineteen watersheds. That’s a lot of waterfront property!

The Muskoka region. We explored from Gravenhurst at the bottom around through Rosseau and over to Huntsville at the very top right-hand corner of the map.

As you can see on the map, many of the lakes are almost shard-like in their configuration, but among them are several sizable lakes. One of the three largest is Lake Rosseau – our destination. The drive north takes us almost three hours (only two and a bit if you don’t count the time it takes to actually clear the city!) and takes us past rolling countryside and lake after lake with cottages dotting the shorelines here and there. But don’t get the idea that these “cottages” are tiny substitutes for homes. There are a few of those, but so many of them have three-boat boathouses on the shore up from which you can glimpse the multi-million-dollar estates. These are the summer homes of the rich and famous, but mostly just rich. (The famous ones with homes here? These include Martin Short, Tom Hanks, Kate Hudson and parents Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russel, Steven Spielberg and even Justin Beiber if you must know.)

The day is rainy and cloudy, but we are never put off by the weather (remember the saying? There is no bad weather, only poor clothing choices. Amen to that). We arrive at our destination: the JW Marriott Rosseau Muskoka Resort and Spa to find that the staff all seem to have evaporated. There isn’t a bell-person or valet in sight. We haul our luggage in the door and once someone realizes that guests have arrived, the staff snap to Marriott-level guest service and we don’t have another complaint.

We arrive at the resort.

Our room has a wonderful view of the lake, a fireplace and a large terrace. Since the weather is a bit brisk, we don’t have much of a chance to sit out and meditate on the water and the clean air, but it’s wonderful nonetheless. Since it turns out that much of the resort is time-shared, the accommodation, regardless of size, seems to all have kitchenettes, eating and lounging areas. Our room was very spacious with a wonderful, large bathroom.

The living area of our waterview room…
Our fireplace…
Our view.

You could be forgiven for expecting this hotel to be a bit like the old-time grand hotels that we wrote about after we visited the Sagamore in upstate New York, but this one was actually built only ten years ago. This actually has a lot going for it since it means that the rooms are much larger and the bathrooms soooo much larger and better equipped.

Lake Rosseau waterfront at the resort.

With the nippy fall day, we really enjoy the two wonderful fireplaces in the lobby areas on the main floor – and a soaring atrium, a few other features that don’t come along with the old hotels. The hotel has two terrific high-end restaurants and we experience both. Teca, the Italian restaurant, is one of those places that make you feel as if you aren’t actually in a hotel rather dining at an esteemed restaurant anywhere in the world. The food and service are both brilliant. The Chop House is also a terrific steakhouse.

The resort from the water side.

So, here we are in Muskoka. What to do? The resort itself offers a few activities, none of which are the kinds of things we like to do, so we decide to explore the area. Each day we head out to explore another road and visit the three largest towns in the regions Bracebridge, Gravenhurst and Huntsville. Bear in mind that the population of Huntsville, the largest, is something shy of 20,000. That being said, we manage to find great places for lunch and Patty finds at least four terrific little boutiques for a bit of shopping. When we arrive back at the resort, the staff have a wood fire burning out front. One day they’re asking us to join them to roast marshmallows. Another day they’re offering hot chocolate. There is hardly another soul around in spite of the fact that a convention has arrived. We love the solitude.

If it had been a bit earlier in the season, we could have boarded one of the vintage lake steamers from the dock at Gravenhurst to tour Lake Rosseau from the water. Maybe next time.

But the highlight of the visit was the young people working at the Marriott resort. They represented a variety of ethnicities and cultures yet seemed all to be acquiring the Marriott culture that is always something we look forward to when we visit other cities and countries. A weekend in New England? How about a mid-week escape to Muskoka? Done!

Grand Old Hotels: Some are grander than others

There’s something so romantic about the idea of those grand, old hotels of yesteryear. The long, low buildings with those wrap-around porches overlooking a tranquil lake, palm plants in the lobby where a string quartet plays. And the guests are elegantly attired and enjoying a serene holiday away from the heat of the city. Epitomized in that 1980 film Somewhere in Time, these hotels have always held an allure for us. Remember that movie? Just look at the hotel!

Well, that hotel, The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in Michigan is still on our bucket list, but we’ve visited a few others and have just returned from one that we thought might be the luxury experience they advertise. We have just returned from The Sagamore Resort in upstate New York.

The Sagamore Resort with its porch facing Lake George, New York.
The entrance to the Sagamore. This is the historic hotel where we stayed, but there are many modern “lodges” on the resort property.

When we first visited their web site to book, we were enthralled by the drone footage of this incredible resort on a private island on Lake George. And there was the iconic hotel design. It was love at first sight. They refer to themselves as “Lake George’s premier luxury resort” and with a price tag of nearly $800.00 a night for a water view room in the main historic hotel, how could we go wrong? Let us count the ways.

Being on a summer road trip, we had just come from the Algonquin Resort in St. Andrews, New Brunswick, another of the grand old hotels that we have visited many times.

Their grounds are not nearly so grand as the Sagamore’s, but their main historic hotel rooms are wonderful and the price? We paid less than $300 (Canadian) for what turned out to be a far superior room and a more luxurious experience. But, what about the Sagamore? Our story covers the good, the bad and the very ugly.

Let’s start with the good bits. When approached, the staff are, to a person, attentive, friendly and personable. From the valets parking our car to the housekeeping staff, we had not complaints in that department. Then there was the food. It was exceptional for hotel dining. We enjoyed La Dolce Vita, their main dining room as well as al fresco dining at The Pavilion.

Margaritas on the deck at The Pavilion.

But the pièce de résistance had to be the wonderful Grill at the golf course. Off-site, it was serene, peaceful and served wonderful steaks. And the service was impeccable. And the grounds are lovely (we enjoyed them as long as we stayed away from the pool, beach and anywhere that was populated – more about why in a minute).

A cruise on the Sagamore’s “The Morgan” is included in your resort fee. We highly recommend taking advantage of this.

So, those were the good bits. Now for the bad bits.

The room. Furnished in an historic style, the room was just a very ordinary, tired-looking hotel room. For the price, we have had so much better. Can we talk about dust encrustation on parts of the bathroom and dust in the crevices of the old dressers – and there were lots of crevices. The carpets were not fresh either. But the bathroom had been renovated and was acceptable (except for that dirt).

Patty enjoying a glass of champagne (which we brought with us) in our $$$ room. Yes, that’s how small it was.

The hotel is old so the noise tends to permeate, but that wouldn’t have been a problem if it were not for…the ugly bits.

The place was crawling with children. Loud children. Whining children. Children running amok through dining rooms, hallways, outdoor walkways, the “beach”, the pool. You name it, they made the experience like being in Dante’s ninth circle of hell. We chatted with a young couple from Boston who had just arrived and were surprised to see so many children. You see, they had read the promotional material and had left their children at home with the grand-parents for a brief, romantic getaway. At that point, it wasn’t looking so romantic to them.

Overall, we tend to be able to have a good time wherever we go, but this was such a disappointment that we will not make that mistake again. It is not a luxury experience in any way, shape or form. It is just expensive. We will head to The Grand Hotel on Mackinac Island in the off-season and hope for that serene experience.

Postcard from Beijing and the Great Wall of China (Part 1)

IMG_7637Whenever you pick up a postcard on your travels (even if only to look) you’re likely to find that that postcard-worthy photograph has the following characteristics: it’s framed to show the scene from its best perspective (which includes being minus the mobs of people who might be there from time to time) and the weather – if it’s an outdoor photo – will be perfection. For most people we know who have visited Beijing and The Great Wall of China, finding that perfect-weather day where the sun is shining, the air is clear and the crowds are minimal, seems just about impossible. But we did it. We were there that day. Let’s back up…

Using a small cruise ship – the Silversea Silver Shadow – as our transportation, we leave Shanghai to traverse the Yellow Sea enroute to Beijing. But Beijing isn’t on the coast, you might reasonably interject. No, it isn’t, but that won’t stop us from visiting inland. Before we left home in Toronto, we booked what Silversea calls and “Overland Journey.” This means that in mid-cruise, we will leave the ship, travel by bullet train to Beijing, tour the city, overnight in a first-class hotel, visit the Great Wall the next day, then rejoin the ship.

We arrive in the early hours of the morning to the eerily silent cruise-ship terminal in the port of Tianjin.

 

Steeling ourselves for the fact that this is a group tour (and everyone knows how much we love a group excursion – not!), we meet the tour guide shore-side then board a surprisingly well-appointed bus that leaves precisely on time and transports us to the Tianjin train station. It is a huge facility. Since we have a bit of time before we have to board our train, we take a walk around the terminal. It’s a peculiar feeling to be examined so closely by so many sets of eyes, as if they have never seen a people from the West, and it turns out that many of them in the station that day had seen very few.

 

We finally board the train for the 35-minute ride to North Beijing station at a speed that reaches 297 km/hour – we know this since the speed at which the train is travelling flashes across the screen in the front of the car. If we had taken a bus a many of the other cruise-ship passengers did, it would have taken upwards of two hours to get there. We arrive in Beijing. Despite the expectation that we will suffer from the smog, we marvel at the clear sky and sunshine. Our guide explains to us that it rained heavily the night before and the ever-present pollution is now spattered on every car, window and leaf. We notice. Then we are off to visit the Forbidden City.

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It’s hard to miss the evidence of the previous evening’s smog-rain!

The largest imperial palace in the world, The Forbidden City is truly the heart of Beijing. It was constructed in the fifteenth century through the efforts of over 1 million workers over a period of 20 years during the Ming Dynasty and was the imperial home of 24 Emperors of China for over 400 years. It comprises some 980 buildings and almost 9000 rooms! Forbidden to the common Chinese for centuries, it ceased being the seat of Chinese power in 1912 with the abdication of the last emperor of China. (Have you seen the film The Last Emperor? It was filmed here.) Of course, now it is known as the Palace Museum, because that’s what it is. According to our guide, it’s not very busy today. We beg to differ.

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Entering the outer courtyard of The Forbidden City

We spend time getting to the heart of the city through a series of courtyards and are mildly disappointed that you can’t actually go into the buildings. Even the throne room must be viewed from afar. But the architecture! Amazing. Tiananmen Square is next on the agenda.

The square itself seems smaller than it looks on television news reports. We are all old enough to be remembering the infamous Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, odd since the word Tiananmen is the name of the gate at the north end of the square that means “Gate of Heavenly Peace.” The two of us break off from our tour group (nothing new in that!) and walk the entire square taking in the buildings and monuments: The Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People’s Heroes, he National Museum of China, and of course, the mausoleum where Mao’s body still lies in state (we didn’t get inside). But we also see beautiful gardens and more security cameras than we have ever seen in our lives – even in Monaco! It’s an extraordinary juxtaposition of the political and the aesthetic.

 

We notice that one thing is missing: city noise. According to our guide, sirens and other loud nose is forbidden in the area surrounding the square. It is oddly peaceful.

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Extraordinary gardens around the square.

It has now been a long day and we check into our room at the Four Seasons Hotel Beijing. What an extraordinary property! We aren’t sure what we expected, but a five-star hotel smack in the middle of a very upscale, leafy neighbourhood of high-end shopping was not it.

The hotel has spared no detail in its amenities or décor. We choose the Asian restaurant (why would we choose North American while in Asia?) and are delighted with the ambience, the food and the service – the Chinese servers really seem to care. And even their halting English is a lot better than our Chinese, for which we are truly grateful.

 

We have only one night at this wonderful, surprising hotel and would like to spend longer enjoying a night cap in the beautiful bar, but tomorrow we are visiting The Great Wall and have to be up early. So, good night from Beijing.